Resident Expert: UN-NATO Cooperation in Afghanistan

Michael Harsch, Assistant Professor of Practice, NYUAD

In his new book, Faculty Fellow of Social Science Michael Harsch examines the fraught relationship between two of the most important international organizations: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN). The book, The Power of Dependence: NATO-UN Cooperation in Crisis Management, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

What are the roles of NATO and the UN in Afghanistan?

In brief, NATO and the UN’s task has been to stabilize and rebuild one of the most war-torn countries in the world. This has proven to be a daunting challenge.

NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is a twist of history: an Atlantic alliance created to defend Europe became responsible for securing a land-locked country in Asia! The US and many of its NATO allies began their military engagement in Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In late 2001, a US-led coalition defeated the Taliban regime. In 2003, NATO assumed leadership of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), a multi-national military force responsible for promoting security in the country. After more than a decade, ISAF’s mission officially came to an end in December 2014 and has since been replaced by a smaller NATO mission that focuses on training the Afghan security forces.

The UN, on the other hand, has been in Afghanistan for decades, through the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the civil war in the first half of the 1990s and the following Taliban rule. As a result, the UN had a strong reputation in the country when the international community began to re-engage after the fall of the Taliban regime. In March 2002, the UN Security Council created UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan). UNAMA focused on the political process. The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 outlined a roadmap for the establishment of political institutions and the organization of elections. In addition, a large number of UN agencies and programs engaged in humanitarian work.

The crucial task for which neither NATO nor the UN initially felt responsible was the promotion of reconstruction and effective governance. The lack of basic public services increasingly led to frustration among the Afghan population.

What did the organizations do to address this problem?

Initially very little. In 2003, NATO states began setting up Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in Afghanistan, which became key regional hubs for reconstruction activities. The commanders of US-led PRTs had particularly significant budgets at their disposal. Yet most PRT commanders refused to consult the UN on how to spend the money effectively despite the local political expertise held by many UN staff members in Afghanistan. I don't want to say that it didn't happen in extraordinary cases, but generally there was no system in place for regular information exchange between regional UN offices and the PRTs. A NATO general once remarked that NATO and the UN couldn't even talk about the weather because NATO routinely classified weather forecasts. This remark illustrates how grotesquely little information exchange there was between NATO and the UN. Both organizations increasingly worked on governance and development issues but they didn’t coordinate their actions with each other.

Why should international organizations cooperate? What are the benefits?

There is a strong case to be made for cooperation. If organizations operate at the same time in the same conflict zone, working towards similar or even identical goals, both benefit if they can create synergies in their work. They avoid duplication and they do not undermine each other’s actions. And their cooperation can make a huge difference for the local population. In my book I study powerful examples that illustrate how the lack of cooperation directly puts the lives of minority communities and international personnel at risk. For instance, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war might have been avoided if UN peacekeepers and NATO airpower had been better coordinated.

So if cooperation is beneficial, why do organizations often fail to cooperate?

That’s precisely the puzzle that motivated me to write this book. An argument often cited to explain the lack of cooperation between international organizations is that organizations such as the UN and NATO have different civilian-military cultures. As a result, the argument goes, their staff will have a hard time working with each other. This argument is very intuitive, but it cannot explain the great variation in cooperation efforts that we see over time. If we assume that the UN and NATO have incompatible organizational cultures, then there should never be any substantial cooperation between the two.

I use a resource dependence approach to explain why organizations cooperate, or fail to do so. It suggests that the degree and balance of two organizations' resource dependence determines their level of cooperation.

There are tradeoffs when organizations cooperate. Virtually all organizations require external resources to operate and cooperation with other actors can provide access to essential materiel, such as communication technology and logistical capabilities, and symbolic resources, such as legitimacy and reputation. But cooperation comes at a price: once they collaborate, organizations have to consult with a partner and are subject to greater external scrutiny. Moreover, if the resource dependence between two organizations is starkly imbalanced, the stronger partner might tell the weaker partner what to do. This is a problem, because organizations typically have an aversion to external control — everybody likes coordination but nobody wants to be coordinated. Thus, organizations are inclined to avoid cooperation because they don’t want limits placed on their organizational autonomy by a partner.

Norwegian soldiers on patrol in Faryab Province, Afghanistan. Photo credit: International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
But didn't the UN and NATO cooperate closely for a period in Afghanistan?

Yes, they tried to. When the Taliban insurgency rapidly gained strength in 2006–2007, ISAF nations realized that they would need partners like the UN to promote effective governance and reconstruction in Afghanistan. They also needed the UN’s legitimacy to convince their own populations that they were fighting a “good” war. The UN, in turn, required NATO’s logistical and military capabilities to operate in an increasingly dangerous, militarized environment.

In 2008, both organizations undertook significant efforts to align their positions on contentious issues such as aid delivery and civilian casualties. Kai Eide, who previously served as a Norwegian Ambassador to NATO, was appointed as the new UN envoy to Afghanistan. Further, the UN and NATO secretaries-general signed a joint declaration on headquarters cooperation, which provided the first official accord the two organizations ever concluded. Though the document was short and contained few concrete steps to improve cooperation, it was a significant step. At that moment, the UN formally recognized NATO as a partner in crisis management.

Why did cooperation break down between the two groups?

Cooperation was indeed short-lived. It declined in 2009–10. The resource dependence approach helps explain this: The US-led "surge" [a massive increase in the level of US civilian and military personnel] dramatically changed the balance of resources in favor of NATO. NATO’s substantial military, logistical and financial capabilities made it an attractive partner for the UN. However, the UN remained reluctant to engage in cooperation. Visible support for the counter-insurgency campaign would damage its most important resource: legitimacy.

As NATO expanded its presence in Afghanistan, the UN literally came under siege. In October 2009, five UN staff were killed in a Taliban attack on a UN guest house in Kabul. ISAF didn’t respond to this attack in any meaningful way, despite the existence of an agreement that committed ISAF to provide support for UN personnel in life-threatening situations. A number of UN personnel left Afghanistan after the attacks. There was also a deep internal crisis within the UN over how to deal with fraud during the 2009 Afghan presidential elections. All the while, the resource imbalance between the two organizations was greater than ever before as NATO’s military and civilian capabilities in Afghanistan rapidly grew. Cooperation stymied as resource dependence became starkly imbalanced.

What can we learn from the Afghan experience?

Greater levels of mutual resource dependence in conflict zones tend to promote closer cooperation between organizations. From this perspective, NATO’s diminishing presence in Afghanistan might provide opportunities for meaningful cooperation with UNAMA. One key challenge for cooperation remains: visible collaboration between the UN and a military alliance may jeopardize the UN’s local and international legitimacy. This is exactly where academics and policymakers need to collaborate to find pragmatic solutions which help to resolve and prevent violent conflict in Afghanistan and other fragile states.